In Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates offers this poignant passage about his experience with school as a child. For Coates, being a public school student in Baltimore meant being trapped by two forces: the streets and the schools.
The streets were not my only problem. If the streets shackled my right leg, the schools shackled my left. Fail to comprehend the streets and you gave up your body now. But fail to comprehend the schools and you gave up your body later. I suffered at the hands of both, but I resent the schools more. There was nothing sanctified about the laws of the streets–the laws were amoral and practical…. But the laws of the schools were aimed at something distant and vague. What did it mean to, as our elders told us, “grow up and be somebody?” And what precisely did this have to do with an education rendered as rote discipline?
Coates goes on, explaining that the institution charged with liberating the mind was, for him, more devoted to imprisoning the body.
To be educated in my Baltimore mostly meant always packing an extra number 2 pencil and working quietly. Educated children walked in single file on the right side of the hallway, raised their hands to use the lavatory, and carried the lavatory pass when en route. Educated children never offered excuses–certainly not childhood itself. The world had no time for the childhoods of black boys and girls. How could the schools? Algebra, Biology, and English were not subjects so much as opportunities to better discipline the body, to practice writing between the lines, copying the directions legibly, memorizing theorems extracted from the world they were meant to represent. All of it felt so distant to me.
Of course, most teachers don’t intend their work with students to resemble what Coates describes. But might it do so anyway, at least for some students? I’ve observed new and seasoned teachers proudly waiting for children to get into a straight line or to be quiet and still. How do we reconcile such practices with what Coates writes above?